Itchan Kala is the largest intact walled city in Central Asia, and among the most magnificent surviving walled cities on the continent. Its picture-perfect, sandy-colored crenelated walls and domed towers look as though it has been built as a movie set. Thanks to its isolated location, distant from Tashkent, Bokhara and Samarkhand, Itchen Kala in Khiva is off the beaten path even by Uzbekistan standards. It is possibly the most inaccessible site in this list. That makes it also one of the most rewarding fortresses for those who successfully make the journey. Itchen Kala is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city of Khiva dates from ancient times, when it was known as Khorezm. It was a relatively minor stop on the Silk Road during Roman times and throughout the Middle Ages. Located at a crossroads of many peoples, Khiva changed hands numerous times. In the late 14th century it became part of the empire of Timur. It was under the Timurid dynasty that Khiva reached its height as one of the great cities of Central Asia.
From the 1500s to the 1900s, Khiva was the capital city of the Khanate of Khiva, one of the successor states to the Timurid Empire. The city’s rulers were direct descendants of Genghis Khan. Eventually Khiva broke away from what would later become the Mughal Empire to the southeast. However, the khans shared the Mughal’s love of massive, over-the-top architecture, and many of Khiva’s cities were graced with great new public projects.
In the city of Khiva itself, the focus was on the city wall. By the 16th century, the old medieval walls were in a severe state of disrepair. European powers were beginning to arrive in Asia in search of colonies, and the long-established Mongol realms were beginning to fragment. The Khans of Khiva rebuilt the wall on a massive scale. This kept the inner city, and the residence of the khan, safe until a new threat arrived in the 1800s.
By the late 19th century, the kingdoms of Central Asia were all but gone. The great neighboring empires of India and Persia were subjugated to Europe. The Russian Empire, which had been inching southeastwards for centuries, had finally arrived in force. Unfortunately, the walls, which were ideal to defend against tribal maurauders, were no match for modern artillery. Khiva fell after a brief siege in 1873. Although the long history of the Khiva khanate was at an end, the Russians at least had the foresight to preserve the magnificent city of Itchan Kala for future generations.
The Walled City of Itchan Kala is in a class by itself when it comes to fortifications in Central Asia. To say that it looks like it was constructed on a Hollywood backlot is an understatement. It could easily have been lifted straight out of Disney’s Aladdin, and Itchan Kala may have been an inspiration for the fictional city of Agrabah. The walls, while founded in the 10th century, largely date to the city’s reconstruction in the 17th century. The entire circuit sits on a tall, steep-sloped lower foundation designed to make it very difficult for enemies to bring siege equipment to bear in this otherwise flat landscape.
On top of this foundation is the main wall itself, a sandy-bricked behometh over thirty feet in height. Massive round and octoganal towers jut out from the walls at regular intervals. Entrance to the city is through four great gates with towers capped by blue-tiled domes. Inside the walls of Itchan Kala, the old city is a bustling, living museum. Many of the city’s nearly three hundred buildings are either historic monuments or used as mini-museums.
The walls of Itchan Kala enclose the old inner city of Khiva, 400 miles west of Tashkent and 260 miles north of Asgabat in Turkmenistan. Itchan Kala is theoretically an open site, but there is a charge for admission at the main gate; there is none at the other gates. However, the admission charge also gets access to all of the city’s museums as well as the walls. No other visitor information was available as of this writing. Web: www.tourism.uz (official tourism website of Uzbekistan)
There are very few walled cities left in Central Asia today, certainly none as magnificent as Itchan Kala. However, a very close second would be Bukhara Fortress. Technically a fort, it is large enough to constitute a city in and of itself. South of Khiva in Turkmenistan is the town of Merv. Located here are the ruins of the ancient Walled City of Merv, which at one time was one of the largest cities in Central Asia.